A modest proposal for preventing the elderly of an impoverished America from being a burden on their children or country and for making them beneficial to the public.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
It is sadly apparent to those who travel this great country — when they see along the highways aging bikers with long grey ponytails or on the beaches men who are long past the age when they should be seen in Speedos or at political rallies, where they quake in fear over competing claims about retirement benefits — that the elderly are not only an eyesore but a growing threat to our society because of their cost, the speed at which they drive, and because, absent real work to do or support from their impoverished government, they could easily turn to crime or worse, turn to us, their relatives, and seek to move into our basements or family rooms.
I think it is agreed by all Americans that this prodigious number of burdensome old folks visible to all as they conduct their morning mall walks or take up valuable bench space in public parks are, given the present deplorable state of the nation, a source of great unease, debate, and public dissension and therefore whoever could find a fair, cheap and easy method of making these chronologically challenged Americans sound and useful members of the commonwealth would earn the gratitude of the public to such a degree that he would have a statue erected in his honor or possibly have his bust added to those on Mount Rushmore.
But my intention is far from being limited to providing for the admittedly not overly long futures of our senior citizens. It is my goal to also address a number of the other urgent issues facing the United States. Among these are the financial crisis that threatens to bring our country to its knees, the divisive political debate that has rendered our government dysfunctional, and the need to find ways to provide for our public defense and national security while living within our means.
The great advantage to my program is that it is instantly apparent to anyone who hears it described, even those with profound intellectual deficits like reality-show contestants and members of Congress, that it solves not only the greatest problem the country faces — that of ensuring care for the elderly — but that it does so instantly and in such a sweeping nature that it might once again reknit the rent fabric of our polity and restore unity to a fractured, hurting society. It does so in a way that will also eliminate the need to resort to commonly contemplated alternative approaches to addressing the plight of the aging including placing them on ice floes, sending them to python-infested streets of Florida, or providing them with health-care vouchers that aren’t worth the paper they might be printed on. I am also able to rule out the approach suggested in 1729 by Dr. Jonathan Swift in his "A Modest Proposal," which recommended that to deal with a similar over abundance of unwanted people, in that case poor children, that the surplus population of grubby little kids be eaten and, where possible, their skins turned into "admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen."
My program draws on our history and reinstates one of America’s most venerated national programs while, at the same time, drawing equally on the ideas, priorities and programs of our political mothers and fathers, the Democratic and Republican parties. The aforementioned program is the draft, a nationwide program of conscription, and my proposal is that we institute mandatory military service for all Americans over 65 years of age.
Can you think of a single proposal that so directly addresses the shared concerns of an aging nation for its oldest citizens while at the same time guaranteeing the public care for those seniors sought by Democrats and providing for the strengthened national defense so important to all Republicans? One that helps trim our fiscal deficit and eliminate the retirement health-care deficit altogether? One that could end the brief and unwelcome outbreak of substantive debate about the nuts and bolts of massive government programs and allow us to return to the character assassination and discussions of hair-care regimes and hunting techniques that we prefer to dwell on during election campaigns?
Because I have digressed from enumerating the merits of my proposal for too long, I will return to the central purpose of this essay. I think the advantages of the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.
First, as I have already observed, this approach would immediately place our elderly into the care of the government. Not only would it do this but it would do so via an institution, the military, which is accustomed to providing for every need of its members and has a long history of putting into productive use those whom age also renders nearly impossible to deal with: teenagers.
Second, because every older American would be in the military, we would actually have no need at all for Medicare. Not only would this eliminate the threat posed by the unfathomably large deficit associated with it but, as this is also the greatest threat extant to America’s wellbeing, it would thereby strengthen the country in ways achievable by no other current or contemplated program of the Department of Defense or the military contractors it serves.
Third, because the nature of modern warfare is increasingly limited to electronic, cyber, drone-based or other joystick-driven activities, the physical limitations of many older Americans should not be a problem. Indeed, it is possible — though many American businessmen seem to discount this possibility — that the experience of these older folks might be of some use. For example, if our military were as adept at the elderly at devoting their time to shouting at the television or spending hours trying to set the clock on their DVRs, there would be less time to fight wars and thus costs would be further reduced. (Which is not to say they would not be ready to fight. If my relatives are any indication, the elderly are capable of being every bit as hostile as the generations that followed them.)
Fourth, because it is unavoidable that conflicts do occur, were we to field an army of the elderly, we would eliminate war’s greatest tragedy: the untimely death of the young who have historically been called upon to fight. This would have the added benefit of significantly reducing the health-care and Social Security costs these honored dead might otherwise have incurred, especially those associated with the last six months of life, which, with some luck, these protectors of our nation would avoid altogether. It would also be a fairly easy matter to reduce the costs associated with this program further simply by increasing the demands made on inductees during basic training, which could take place at or near national cemeteries to reduce shipping costs associated with burials. And the increasingly heavy burdens of our Veteran’s Administration, caring for wounded soldiers for decades after they were discharged, would disappear given that both these soldiers are less likely to survive their wounds and, in any case, would not live that much longer even if they were healthy.
Fifth, if our politicians are as reckless about entering into overseas entanglements as they have been throughout history, the thinning out of the ranks of our seniors would have the added benefit of resetting the balance between younger, working members of society contributing to social programs and the number of older citizens drawing upon them.
Sixth, it is of course, assumed that the rich would find ways to exempt themselves from these programs and thus there would be sufficient numbers of civilian elderly to play necessary social roles in television dramas, serve as department-store Santas and ensuring that the grandchildren of the rich are spoiled as they deserve to be.
Many other advantages to this program can be enumerated. For example, it would get aging drivers off the roads, enhancing the safety and speed by which others are able to go about their daily business. Further, armies of other, more humane nations (and virtually all others on the planet clearly revere the elderly more than we do given the evidence associated with the current debate on Medicare and the unwillingness of either party to actually address the real underlying issues associated with it) would be less inclined to shoot at or harm our long, grey lines of battlefield troops. This would more than make up for any disadvantages associated with their feebleness, incontinence, or inability to remember where they put their keys. Similarly, programs like "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" would be rendered unnecessary, as most members of the military won’t remember what the question was in the first place.
Supposing that there are 40 million Americans over the age of 65, and 48 million on Medicare, this would clearly both largely remove the problems associated with that failing program and, at the same time, provide a large pool of people for military service. While there are currently 73 million people between the ages of 18 and 49 and thus eligible for military service, it must be remembered that a draft would bring far more people into service than the approximately 2.25 million Americans in active or reserve service today. This would satisfy those in the Republican Party who, despite the absence of any threat to U.S. security comparable to those of the 20th century, are always seeking to vastly increase our armed forces. It would also please them by constituting those forces with people for whom their nostalgic, Cold War-era policies seem fresh and contemporary. And it would satisfy budget hawks, because we would actually be getting some public service in exchange for the money paid to the elderly instead of the current Medicare arrangement which regrettably contains no mandatory work arrangement.
Given the obvious merits of such a program, I think it is fair to ask that no man or woman take issue with it unless he or she has a superior idea. Much like Dr. Swift, I am "not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual." Also, I want to point out, like Swift before me, that "I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work." I just don’t have that many elderly relatives. My parents were only children and one of them is already dead. The other, my mother, is by temperament and energies, well-suited to military service. As for me, I will be eligible for such a program far too soon but am willing to undertake it despite the risks and inconvenience it might pose, as I was planning to move south anyway when I got older and given the sad state of affairs our political leaders have left us in, I’m not sure living outside military bases will be safe in America for much longer. As for my wife, she is much younger and likely to move to Canada or somewhere in the Yucatan after I die.